Will is a reformed rare book and manuscript forger who has spent the last twenty years on the straight and narrow living a placid existence with his loving wife, Meghan and two daughters Nicole and Maisie. This idyllic life will be upended as an old enemy of Will has aggressively confronted the eleven year old Maisie in their Hudson Valley, NY home and forced a package upon her that was to be given to her father. Will fervently believed that he had settled all accounts and claims from his past but now in Bradford Morrow’s exquisite sequel to THE FORGERS, entitled THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER he is faced with a decision that could upend his family and their way of life.
Morrow is a talented novelist who in 2014 decided to write a thriller that depicted the underside of the rare book and manuscript world, a world in which Morrow was well versed. His readers will be quite satisfied with his latest effort as he continues to impart the seamier side of his protagonist’s avocation. After his daughter is attacked, Will is confronted with Henry Slader who has reappeared after being released from prison having served a sentence after brutally attacking Will with a meat cleaver while he and the family were living in Kenmare, Ireland severely damaging his right hand when he refused to go along with Sadler’s demands. Lingering in the background throughout the novel is the murder of Meghan’s brother Adam Diehl, another practitioner of literary forgery twenty years earlier, and Will’s own sordid literary past.
Morrow’s approach to preparing and writing a mystery thriller is intellectually satisfying with his repeated references and excerpts from the works of numerous literary figures including, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and W.B. Yeats. As in the first novel, Morrow’s obsession with anything related to Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes character pervades the story. Morrow places Will in a very tenuous position as Slader demands that he reproduce a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s first book TAMERLANE which with only twelve known copies in circulation is considered the holy grail of American letters. The story unfolds carefully and selectively as Will and Meghan co-narrate the story telling the tale through alternating chapters.
The novel travels evocatively from upstate New York farmhouses to Manhattan auction houses, and there’s an aptly gothic tinge to the tense drama that ensues. Will does not realize how dangerous Slader’s request and threats pose to his family as to complete the task he must coopt his twenty year old daughter Nicole who he has trained and imparted his knowledge and calligraphical skills over the years.
(Rhinebeck, NY downtown)
Despite his misgivings Will proceeded as he felt a weird kinship with Slader who he realized was his equal in the dark craft of forgery. While he mistrusted Slader he was somewhat envious of him as he concluded that the two of them had survived the machinations against each other and had shattered each other’s lives in significant ways as they had been extremely competitive even before they formally met. Will concluded that Slader was no worse a transgressor than he was himself and started to accept the idea that had they been collaborators instead of competitors, God knows what satanic masterpieces they might have produced. But what Will most regretted was that he would have to involve Nicole in the project.
The novel progresses as Will and Meghan narrate chapters sharing their emotions and misgivings about what Slader had roped Will into doing. Through Will and to a lesser extent Nicole the reader will be exposed to the mechanics of preparing forgeries and the emotional toll that it takes. Further, Morrow relates how the avocation of bookselling was carried out and the numerous steps involved in preparing, pricing, and selling books to book dealers, private citizens, or the general public.
As is the case in all of Morrow’s novels he is a master in creating meaningful characters. In THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER they include Henry Slader, a narcissist who is the source of many of Will’s demons; Nicole, Will and Meghan’s perceptive and talented daughter; and Atticus Moore, Will’s rare old book compatriot who reemerges after twenty years.
After spending most of the novel in upstate New York in their Hudson Valley farmhouse Will and Meghan will return to Manhattan and make a spectacular discovery in their bookstore. The discovery will lead to an unexpected turn in the plot line that produces a wild finish to the novel. You do not have to be an obsessive book devotee to enjoy THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER as it stands alone as a wonderful literary thriller.
After reading Bradford Morrow’s PRAGUE SONATA I knew that I had to move on to another of his novels. The choice I made, THE FORGERS, is an excellent and absorbing story that delves into the corrupt and invidious nature of the rare book collector’s world in addition to a murder mystery that is dominated by love and obsessions. The novel begins in the upscale community of Montauk, NY, a town located on the eastern most tip of Long Island where the postman on a routine delivery enters a beachfront cottage and discovers the body of a local resident with its hands cut off. The scene is littered with manuscripts by political and literary figures from an earlier era with other rare books splayed on the floor. Book inscriptions were torn from works on Lincoln, Churchill, Twain, Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the books were torn to shreds and the victim, Adam Diehl, a book collector seems the subject of a ruthless and senseless murder.
The narrator of the novel is named Will, though for some reason Morrow does not divulge his name for the first half of the book. The murder seems rather odd as many valuable books were not taken or damaged. Will is dating Diehl’s sister, Meghan and never really got along with her brother. Meghan operates a bookstore in the East Village and Will and Adam had been book forgers which is the only thing they had in common. Morrow delves into the emotional attachment that rare book collectors share as Will points out the eroticism, emotion, and true happiness that forging a manuscript or inscription gave him.
Will is a complex character whose forging career ended abruptly when an unknown source turned him into the police. He was convicted and given probation ordering restitution to his victims and he served his time and thought it was all behind him. Trying to live on the straight and narrow was difficult because for Will, forging was an addiction that he could not share with Meghan who he deeply loved. The murder itself will soon become a cold case though Will had come across an invoice from a Henry Slader when they were cleaning the cottage after the police had wrapped up the case. Slater seemed to have purchased some of Adam’s books and forgeries and was receiving monthly installments from Adam. Will suspected Slader but had no proof.
Will shared the forger’s life with Adam but also a love of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the creator of Sherlock Holmes in addition to any letters or manuscripts that dealt with the author. Will’s obsession with Holmes began in childhood and he had purchased a number of Holmes materials from a dealer in Providence, RI. The materials were a fraud, but Will admired the forgery as the finest he had ever seen reflecting his love of his craft and his admiration for others who pursued the same avocation as he did.
Will had begun to receive threatening letters in a forged Henry James script at the time he started dating Meghan. He assumed they were from Adam, but after his murder the letters continued. Will was haunted by the letters and was afraid that their author would turn him into the police as Adam’s murderer. At the same time Will was convinced that the author of the letters was the true murderer.
After marrying, Meghan and Will decide to sell off all their possessions and move to Ireland. Will took some of the proceeds from selling his valuable collections to pay Slader off, hoping the letters would stop and he would be able to begin a new life with his bride in Ireland. Will’s wish was not to be granted as new letters arrived as they were moving, and he was convinced that he was being stalked by Slader after their relocation.
Morrow is a superb novelist, a teacher at Bard College, and the editor of the distinguished literary magazine, Conjunctions. He himself is a serious book collector with a particular interest in books inscribed by their authors to notable friends, or volumes that once belonged to other famous people. As the novel unfolds it is obvious that Morrow has a particular love of rare books and when he has Will add inscriptions that are perfect forgeries to the front-end papers. Will is extremely talented and states that “when I am finished copying a warm personal epistle to one of the author’s friends, for instance, a part of my soul merged with Doyle’s.” Will prided himself on fooling the experts.
Morrow’s writing has almost a lyrical quality to it be it a mundane conversation or references to poets or masters of fiction. As Morrow proceeds, he periodically turns to the past as Will acknowledges his artistic mother who taught him his calligraphic skills, and his wealthy father who taught him about collecting rare books and the pleasure that it brought him. When Morrow returns to the present, Meghan and Will are in Ireland trying to escape the past, but the past seems to rise up as they cannot escape Adam’s death and the threats against Will.
This is an audacious novel with intricate details ranging from the Irish countryside, the shape of letters and the type of ink used to scribe, to unpacking a complex story that may move slowly at times, but the language is precise and at times beautiful. Obviously, I greatly enjoyed the book and if you do, we are in luck because after seven years Morrow has just published the sequel, THE FORGER’S DAUGHTER.
Nicola DeRobertis-Theye’s debut novel THE VIETRI PROJECT is a well-conceived and imaginative work of historical fiction that presents an intimate portrait of a complex young woman trying to evade her uncertain future that will lead her to discover a great deal about her family, her own life, and the pitfalls we all face. The story revolves around Gabriele, a young woman who recently graduated college and works in a bookstore in Berkley, California. Immediately, Gabriele tells the reader about a man named Giordano Vietri who lives in Rome and orders fifty somewhat obscure books which she is put in charge of locating and shipping to Italy. Once the order is filled it is followed but a series of new ordersfor hundreds of books which in the “Amazon era” seemed surprising. Gabriele becomes fascinated by Mr. Vietri, though she knows nothing about him. By coincidence it appears that Vietri’s address is located near where her mother grew up and not far from where Gabriele spent a number of summers during her teen years visiting relatives.
Gabriele becomes obsessed as the book orders keep appearing at the same time, she is approaching her twenty-fifth birthday and as she begins to reevaluate her life, she becomes upset. Her solution is to leave the bookstore and travel the world finally winding up in Rome in search of Mr. Vietri. As her search for Vietri proceeds she is given a box that contains a book by one of Vietri’s neighbors and she hopes that the book will provide a road map to locate her target. As her search unfolds Gabriele renews her relationship with her cousin Andrea who tries to assist her in her quest.
As the novel unfolds it becomes more and more personal for Gabriele in that her 25th birthday holds tremendous significance as when her mother reached the same age she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic which provokes a great deal of guilt. Gabriele learns details of her mother’s life before she turned twenty-five and blames her birth on the development of her mother’s disease. DeRobertis-Theye writes with a great deal of sensitivity as she expertly explores Gabriele’s inner thoughts as she searches for meaning to her life and how she fit into the larger world. Gabriele’s fear is that as she reaches the same age as the onset of her mother’s sickness she too will suffer from mental illness and be institutionalized.
(Benito Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III, and high officials of the Italian military photographed in Ethiopia in 1936)
A stolen electric bill offers Gabriele information which she is convinced will lead her to Vietri, so she decides not to abandon her search and remain in Rome. DeRobertis-Theye introduces a number of important characters which will reorient Gabriele’s life. One of these, Ianucci Loredana, a seventyish widow who lives in an expensive part of Rome rents her a room in her apartment which will begin a relationship that will force Gabriele to learn a great deal of her mother’s past as Ianucci is the mother of Gabriel’s mother’s best friend while growing up.
DeRobertis-Theye creates a sense of realism throughout the novel as she integrates contemporary events into the story, i.e., the Amanda Knox trial, the death of Muhammar Qadhafi, refugees caused by the Arab Spring, Silvio Berlusconi, and the reign of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini’s fascist reign in Italy is explored through the eyes of an author who has written a biography of an Italian artist who was arrested in 1935 for articles written for an anti-fascist Italian newspaper. It seems the artist came from the same village, Aliano as Mr. Vietri and wrote a memoir that recounted his time in the Vietri home village; a widow whose husband served with Vietri in World War II; and a journalist who wrote a story about a pottery company named Vietri. However, what is deeply important is Italy’s uncomfortable history that includes the brutality of an Apennine village that the author presents in the 1930s along with the atrocities perpetrated by Italian troops in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) during its occupation and the murder of Jews under Mussolini.
Gabriele’s search for Vietri unfolds very slowly at the same time she uncovers a great deal about her own family. The key is whether Gabriele finds Vietri, but in reality, does it matter in the larger dilemma of Gabriele’s life. The novel itself relies on the nature of identity, personal and national, along with the dangers of secrecy. For Gabriele she has come of age in a broken world, along with a family that seems to have been broken for generations.
THE VIETRI PROJECT is a strong first novel with an absorbing story line that focuses in large part on how one survives in a world rife with violence, destruction, and madness. The dominant theme is Gabriele’s need to be defined only by her true inner self, even if she was unsure who, or what, that was.
(Crowds of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, 1942)
The role of women during the Holocaust be it their experiences in the death camps, participants in the resistance, and the effect of Nazi atrocities on the families of victims has not received the attention it should. Five years ago, Sarah Helms’ Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women was published and provided numerous insights into what women experienced in the camps, but their role in the resistance has not received the serious treatment that needed to be afforded until now with the publication of Judy Batalion’s THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS. In her remarkable book Batalion has created a narrative that follows the exploits of a number of women who fought back against the Nazi genocide. Batalion focuses on Renia Kuklieka, who was a courier for the Zionist youth organization; “Freedom,” Zivia Lubetkin, a “Freedom” leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; Frumka Plotnicka, a “Freedom” comrade who led the fighting organization in Bedzin, Poland; and Vladka Meed, who rescued countless people from the Warsaw Ghetto and other acts of bravery and genius. There are numerous other courageous women that Batalion brings to the reader’s attention and they all exhibit an unimaginable degree of courage, tenacity, and empathy as they confronted their situation on a daily basis.
Batalion tells her story through the eyes of numerous women through their personal experiences, first trying to maintain a degree of normalcy once the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. They would continue their work with Zionist Youth organizations working to gain passage to Palestine, trying and manipulate the Judenrat, and training their members for what appeared to be a dismal and dangerous future. Batalion examines the lives and personalities of these women and explores their character as they evolved into strategists, leaders, and carrying out dangerous missions. Their bravery was unquestioned, and their work was rewarding in that they chose to return to Poland rather than emigrate to Palestine in order to contribute as much as possible to derail the Nazi machine.
(Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944)
The origin of the book stems from Batalion’s research into the life of Hannah Senesh, one of the few female resisters in World War II not lost to history. While examining material in London’s British Library she came across a book written in Yiddish, FREUEN IN DI GHETTOS (WOMEN IIN THE GHETTOS) published in New York in 1946. Up until that time Batalion and numerous others were unaware how many women were involved in the resistance effort, nor to what degree. The stories recounted in the book speaks of women who engaged in violence, smuggling, gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, and engaging in combat. This exposure to the heroism of these women led Batalion to pursue her narrative that resulted in LIGHT OF DAYS.
The core of female exploits originated from “female ghetto fighters”: underground operatives who emerged from Jewish youth group movements and worked in the ghettos. These young women were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists. The role that stands out is the contribution women made as “couriers,” disguised as non-Jews who traveled between locked ghettos and towns all across Poland smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they obtained themselves. In addition, women fled into the forests and enlisted in partisan units, carrying out sabotage and intelligence missions.
Batalion has the uncanny ability to tell the personal stories of her protagonists uncovering their emotions, strengths, and private thoughts. She presents the horrors of ghetto and camp life that the Nazis perpetrated very clearly. She traces European anti-Semitism dating to the 19th century that culminated in Nazi atrocities. German malice and sadism are on full display as they carried out Hitler’s Final Solution which made Renia and her compatriots sick and haunted from what they witnessed. For Jews anything they did or said at any moment could result in execution of themselves and their families. Jews faced a dilemma even if they escaped the ghetto as their families would be eliminated in retaliation. The options women faced were limited; stay and try to protect the community, run, fight, or flight.
Batalion accurately and poignantly describes life in the Warsaw, Bedzin, and Vilna Ghettos. She examines people’s fears and coping strategies that were developed in order to survive from soup kitchens, autobiographical writings and meetings to share experiences, including medical care and cultural activities. Batalion presents a vivid portrait of the role women played in the preparation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She delves into the acquisition of weapons, explosives, and other necessities including the training that women had undergone. The end result was a disaster from a military point of view, but it provided Jews with self-respect as they achieved revenge against the Germans as they killed over 300 Nazi soldiers suffering over 13,000 deaths of their own. Renia and others escaped to continue their goal of revenge against the Germans.
The resistance organizations that women were a part of were not uniform in their beliefs and strategies. Batalion explains their differences from the left wing Zionist groups to the more religious Akiva organization. The key for these groups was that they were led by individuals mostly in their late teens and late twenties who were committed to seeking vengeance against the Nazis. Batalion’s presentation allows the reader to get to know Renia who by 1944 was only 19 years old and her compatriots on a personal level in addition to their exploits on the battlefield.
Perhaps Batalion’s most powerful chapter, “The Courier Girls” offers a description that humanizes the women in a world of atrocities and genocide. Her details of their preparation and missions are eye opening and for them life affirming. Another important chapter, “Freedom in the Forests – Partisans” is well thought out as life in the forest was extremely difficult but the partisans accomplished a great deal. They set up a village of underground huts which included printing and weapons capabilities, medical attention, a communication network, the accumulation of clothing and food, in addition to the work of the couriers.
At times reading Batalion’s account is literary torture as she describes the use of sex as a means of exchange for survival, torture, rape and other perversions fostered by the Nazis. This material is difficult to digest unless you realize the perpetrators were a version of animals. How Renia and others did not lose their minds is beyond my comprehension.
Batalion’s narrative is somewhat bifurcated as she relates the actions of couriers, events in the ghettos, partisans in the forest, and preparation by all groups in seeking revolt and revenge against the Nazis. On the other hand, her story is one of endurance and survival as she probes the daily travails women faced under the most ominous conditions including imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of death. A case in point is Renia’s capture resulting in constant torture and deportation to Auschwitz. Her story is one of amazement as she would survive the camp by escaping, traveling across Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey and eventually arriving in Haifa, Palestine on March 3, 1944.
Batalion’s epilogue is important as she delves into why women were left out of the “history of resistance” for so long. She focuses on the politics of the newly created state of Israel, how their role was viewed by American historians, the image of women needed to fit the policy and personal goals of the survivors, and why so many women “self-silenced.” It is clear that an incalculable number of women suffered from survival guilt, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war, and Battalion’s recounting of their role is important to set the historical record straight, but also to clarify the emotions the survivors felt and how the next generation views what they accomplished. I agree with Sonia Purnell’s comments in her April 6, 2021 New York Times book review that a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.
What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life? If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to. In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author. Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with. Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.
Adams excelled in a number of areas. His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography. Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.” Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler. It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.
Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America. More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.
The book itself is divided into two parts. The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover. In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition. During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored. Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.” All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age.
According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond. As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”
(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)
Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime. He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions. An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular. Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters. In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward. The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did. Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong. This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.
Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War. As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war. For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult. The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy. Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery. Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery. Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc. The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.
Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences. Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition. When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics. Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation. He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm. While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour. While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.
(Charles Francis Adams)
During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary. Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support. After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class. Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs. Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic. Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.
Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America. Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.” In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race. He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them. Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags. He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”
Adams was content to be a political outsider. He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out. He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom. His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people. Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.
Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual. He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse. He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration. His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market. In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic. Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each. Novels like ESTHER and DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover. His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics. Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society. Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia. Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society. Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.
Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents. Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century. Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from. But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”
Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism. However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.
To sum up Brown has offered a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind. As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”